How Sensory Motor Amnesia Can Ruin Your Career

The Myth of Aging… and Injury

As a child, all I wanted to do with my life was dance.

At the age of 20 I left college and became a professional jazz dancer, but after only five years, and much anguish, I threw in the towel realizing that I had lost my form and could no longer dance the way I once did. My knees hurt all the time. Every time I thought I felt better, a new and different injury or pain would crop up.

I segued into modeling, teaching, and then massage therapy. In my mid-40s I  began to suffer from chronic hip pain that caused me to have to jettison one activity after another: kickboxing, step aerobics, running. I began to believe that which I’d been told by fellow dancers and doctors alike: “you’re getting older, and after all those dance injuries, Martha, you probably have arthritis and will need knee replacements.” I bought that idea hook, line and sinker. So I tried massage, Rolfing, chiropractic, acupuncture, stretching, physical therapy and yoga. Nothing helped my pain for the long term.

And then I was introduced to Hanna Somatic Education – and the concept of Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA).

How Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) builds up over time

SMA is the state of habitually contracted muscles that have literally lost their physiological ability to release and relax. Gentle, easy Somatic Exercises helped me regain awareness of those “amnesic” muscles which had had to compensate time and again for one injury after another. I hadn’t even noticed it happening! Within a very short period of time my hip and knee pain that had been plaguing me for decades went away. I could kneel for the first time in years!

Looking back on my accident history helped clarify the issue:

  • In college I’d torn the ligaments in my left ankle falling down the stairs. I hobbled around on crutches for over a month, compensating on my right side for my left sided injury.
  • I suffered an overuse injury to my right thigh three years later during a rehearsal the week before opening night. The show went on and I danced, compensating beautifully, and no one noticed how severely injured I was.
  • Then my knee issues began: First a surgery for a torn right meniscus and, a year later, two surgeries to shorten the ligaments on both sides of my knees, because my doctors insisted that I was “too flexible” and that that was the cause of my pain. Months on crutches once again.
  • 10 years later I had foot surgery for a painful bunion on my left foot (another month on crutches)
  • Another exploratory knee surgery, and a hamstring pull incurred while running

These are all examples of the Trauma Reflex which occurs reflexively in response to the need to avoid further injury or to nurture an injured limb.

A case of SMA, which started back in my teens, had set in motion a series of subsequent injuries born of muscular compensation. My brain could no longer coordinate my muscles to perform intricate movement patterns of dance – the result of years of sensory motor training.  Adaptive, accumulated muscle tension had caused my body to lose its balance, resulting in muscular asymmetry, tight, painful joints and unequal weight-bearing. Rather than notice imbalances in my posture or movement, the doctors saw the problem from a mechanical perspective: they surgically “fixed” what they understood to be the problem without ever questioning the origin of the problem. The surgeries didn’t help in the long-run. My problem was functional in nature, not structural. One doctor I know phrased the issue beautifully:

“Hanna Somatics offers a scientifically sound method for the diagnosis and treatment of a whole range of complaints that frequently present as medical problems, such as fibromyalgia, pain syndromes and fatigue, but have their real origin in learned, often readily corrected postural errors.”

–Bill Hanson, MD, Professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School

Hanna Somatic Education taught me to move freely again. It gave me back my life and the ability to choose how I want to move. For those who have suffered accidents, injuries, surgeries or repetitive motion injuries, the muscle pain and stiffness you feel is reversible once you teach the brain to sense and move your muscles again. It just might give you back your livelihood!

How Movement Makes You Smarter

Today I went to a dance class in which we learned choreography using hula hoops as props. We practiced some graceful, flowing movements with and without the hoop, then progressed into dancing with the hoop, and moving across the floor.

I was fascinated by the awareness I gained, holding the hoop high above my head as I turned and twirled. It reminded me of a Somatic awareness exercise I’ve given my Somatics students to help them stand taller. In order to hold something above your head you need to be aware of your length through the center of the body. You can’t be bent to one side, or your movement will be thrown off.

Then came the “brain work:” when we moved across the floor, we had two tasks:

  1. Run in triplets (1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3)
  2. Twirl the hoop in one hand.

Neither task was difficult when done by itself. Adding the two together, however, and it was like walking and rubbing your belly at the same time! It took tremendous coordination, despite the fact that when done correctly it looked quite simple. After several times across the floor I began to grasp it. And I could just feel my brain working!

The latest brain research tells us that doing “brain teasers,” especially those that involve physical activity, can help to prevent Alzheimer’s, senility and memory loss.  Combine elements of timing, coordination, and balance and you have a recipe for a “brain teaser” – one that can help you get smarter as you age.

This is very similar to what Hanna Somatic Education teaches; you’re deliberately paying attention to what it feels like to move your body in space – moving the shoulders one way, the hips another, the head yet another, like in the “seated twist” exercise photo. This introduces a similar challenge to dancing with the hoop: the movement looks easy on the surface, but in reality, doing it correctly and building mastery requires brain focus, attention to detail, and practice!

Challenge yourself with some physical brain teasers:

  • Stand on one leg and throw a tennis ball from one hand to the other
  • Skip and notice which muscles have to coordinate to do this
  • Walk normally, but slowly look to the right, then the left
  • Jump rope

Then take a walk and notice what your body feels like. You’ll be surprised at how “awake” it feels!

Practice Makes Improvement

A student of mine recently told me, “you know, I think I’m finally understanding that old habits die hard.” She went on to explain that her private one-on-one Somatics sessions had immediately helped to relieve the pain she’d had for years – but that only after several months of doing her daily 15 minute Somatics routine were the changes beginning to stick. What she told me was that permanent change was due to her consistent, patient and diligent self-monitoring and self-correction.

Can you imagine if a baby could learn to walk perfectly in one day – or even one week? Can you imagine learning to become a ballerina in a week? Or a Tiger-Woods-level golfer in a month? We all understand that mastering physical skills takes weeks, months and sometimes years to become “second nature.” Bad posture, chronic pain and tight, contracted muscles don’t happen overnight. They seem to creep up on us because we don’t pay attention. Just like a sloppy golf swing or free throw. So changing our “technique” of moving requires diligence, persistence and follow-through.

Yes, private Hanna Somatics sessions can teach you, in some cases, to instantly rid yourself of nagging pain. However, if you want stay that way, it’s crucial to consistently practice moving better.  No one ever got good at anything without learning more and practicing.  This is how mastery is achieved. Here are a few things you can do weekly to ensure that you, your muscles and your movement feel good, easy and in control:

  • Do a daily 15-minute Somatics routine
  • Attend a weekly Somatics class
  • Do 3 minutes of gentle Somatic Movements at your desk once every hour during your work day
  • Take a minute to look in the mirror once a day and notice your own posture. If you’re out of balance, close your eyes and see if you can self-correct it.
  • When you’re walking, notice the way in which you walk

So if you’d like to save money by staying healthy and out of pain, take the time to practice.  We will probably never be perfect, but we can always improve!

Pain Relief for the Office Worker: Part 2

For those of you who’ve tried sitting on the floor for a couple of days, have you noticed anything interesting with your body?

I’ve been talking about sitting a lot lately – and for good reason: too many of us sit too much and too long. This causes muscles to become tight – in the hips, back, neck and shoulders. So for those of you who drive or sit on a daily basis, here are three new movements to do at your desk. If you’re a teacher, therapist, writer or researcher, these easy movements will help you relax those overworked, frozen, and tight muscles.

Try these and let me know how you feel. I got an email from a friend in Italy telling me that she did these movements after a long day at her job and it helped a lot. So glad that Somatics is making its way to Europe!

Chairs – Are They Really So Useful?

I’d like to create a retreat at a place where there are no cars, no computers, and no chairs. When you sit on the ground you learn a lot about your body. Just like when you take your shoes off and walk you learn a lot about your own movement; walking without shoes can feel scary and threatening to some people. So can doing away with your chair and sitting on the floor.

Expensive does not mean effective

You may be familiar with the iconic Aeron chair by Herman Miller.

herman-miller-aeron-chair1This chair costs a whopping $963! Its description explains that thePostureFit® technology used in its construction “supports the way your pelvis tilts naturally forward, so that your spine stays aligned and you avoid back pain.”

But here’s the issue: A chair cannot teach you to sit naturally in such a way that you can prevent back pain!

Relying on an external force (the chair) to mold your body to a “correct” position in order to avoid pain is a misguided approach to sitting painlessly and effortlessly. It ignores a person’s existing Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) which causes muscle pain, and forces the body into an unnatural position.

How should I sit to avoid back pain?

Read my Effortless Sitting article to learn in detail how to sit naturally and avoid back pain. Several clients have told me that after they learned to sit properly (through the techniques outlined in the article linked above) their back pain disappeared. Sitting with the pelvis tilted forward, as with the Aeron chair, teaches the back muscles to stay arched and overly contracted. This causes the back muscles to work harder than necessary and ultimately contributes to chronic back pain.

Use it or lose it

Here’s the thing about sitting on the floor: if you never stopped getting up and down off the floor, you would never forget how to do it. Use it or lose it. I have many clients here in the United States who tell me that it is uncomfortable when they sit on the floor, and that, once seated, they struggle to stand up. We are a chair culture and it is hurting us in the long-run.

In Indian, African, and Japanese cultures (to name a few) it is still very common to sit on the floor or squat when eating, waiting, or using the toilet. When I was in India, I saw many elderly people squatting, then standing up with ease. It is clear that they never stopped squatting, and they never spent decades sitting with hips rigidly at 90 degrees and backs arched in a chair.

Sit on the floor more

So try something for a couple of hours every day: get some cushions and put them on the floor.

Sit down to eat, work on your computer, or read a book. Use your coffee table as a desk. Notice how you’ll need to shift your position every so often (this is good – the muscles need to be able to move). Notice things about your body you didn’t notice before. And let me know how it goes.

Somatics for Athletes

I received an email from a client who’s a big baseball fan:

“By the sounds of it, I think John Maine, pitcher for the Mets, has Sensory Motor Amnesia… they fired a lot of their medical staff last year since, so many of their star players were injured all the time.”

I read a New York Post article about the Mets and realized why my client might just be correct. Here are a couple of quotes from the article:

“Maine insists he is fine physically but has no explanation for his struggles.”

“Maine’s off-balance throw skipped past Fernando Tatis at first base…”

Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA) refers to the state of habitually tight muscles that have lost their ability to relax and coordinate properly. This occurs in response to accidents, injuries, surgeries, over training, and other stresses. In athletics, “movement memory” (sometimes called “muscle memory”) is the foundation of consistent high performance. Through years of careful repetition and training, elite athletes learn to hit a 90 mph fast ball, kick a 35-yard field goal, or execute an intricate gymnastics routine. This means that an athlete can repeat an action consistently and reliably.

But what happens when an athlete gets injured, or suffers from repetitive stress? Injury causes reflexive muscular tightening and muscular compensation. One’s movement is no longer fluid, and controlled and muscles don’t respond quickly and efficiently. This can result in an eventual loss of athletic form, throwing off balance, coordination and reliability. A martial artist I know described moving with SMA as like  “trying to drive your car at 60 mph with the parking brake on.”

A case of SMA could signal the end of a career for a professional athlete. John Maine’s pitches become “off-balanced” and miss their mark, and despite no apparent physical “problem,” he just can’t play the way he used to. He’s struggling. Jose Reyes of the Mets has been suffering from repeated hamstring injuries and no one can seem to help him either. An injured hamstring requires that the athlete recruit other muscles to help out. This throws balance and form off and the athlete works harder than necessary, which in turn can result in yet another similar injury.

Hanna Somatics could give the Mets some excellent day-to-day strategies to get back in the game and stay on top despite the accidents, injuries and stresses of their rigorous athletic training.

Stressful Life, Stressful Posture

In my last post I wrote about “David,” who came into his first Somatics class with back pain, tight shoulders and rigid posture. Here’s what he looked like. It’s what Thomas Hanna called the Green Light Reflex also known referred to as the Landau Response.

Green Light Reflex FRONTThis reflex is a major contributor to chronic back pain and is prevalent in urban industrial societies. This reflex is a “call to action” response to the need to get things done: standing all day as a teacher, sitting at a desk writing emails, driving, traveling, handling myriad tasks that must be done right away!  The back muscles tighten to get us ready to move. There’s nothing wrong with that reflex – you just don’t want to get stuck in it. If you live in a society where this reflex is constantly evoked, you will begin to habituate to it. This is where, in my clinical experience, most cases of chronic back pain originate.

The muscles involved in this reflex are the deep muscles of the back that extend from the base of the skull down to the sacrum, the neck and shoulder muscles, buttocks, hamstrings and calf muscles.

What David realized was that he’d gotten stuck and “frozen” in a posture of contracted back muscles, pinned back shoulders and rigid neck. He had forgotten how to sit without tightening his back. Through Somatic Movement classes he learned gentle, easy movement patterns that taught him to regain both sensation, and control of this back muscles. The payoff was that he also learned how to voluntarily relax his back muscles so he would never have to get stuck like that again!

But he also understands that anything you do consistently becomes a habit. This is why he not only takes the time to do 15 minutes of Somatic Movement every day, but also comes to class in order to reinforce and strengthen awareness, control and coordination of his entire body. This is why his back pain is gone and he can travel, sit at his computer, and deal with a stressful job without allowing his stress to take control over him. He’s taken control over his stress!

How Cultural Prejudice Can Create Muscle Pain

“David” has come regularly to class and made impressive changes in his posture and movement. He’d started learning Somatic Exercises because he had constant back pain due to constant travel and long hours at a computer.

After the workshop, “Solving the Mystery of Back Pain,” I noticed that David’s arched back had relaxed. His shoulders used to be pinned back as if someone had just shoved him from behind, but now they were swinging gently as he walked. He was happy; he no longer had back pain, which he said began to disappear once he learned to sit properly. He called that his “AHA!” moment.

He then told me that the trainers at his gym – a well known fitness center nearby – had remarked about his easy, relaxed gait and loose shoulders. They said to him, “I’d rather have back pain than walk the way you’re walking now. You look gay.” What a glaringly cultural statement: “real” men have solid bodies that don’t move. Their hips never move and their backs are straight, with shoulders pinned back. Anything looser than that, according to these certified trainers, borders on “gay.” Who cares if they have pain? David just laughed and told his trainers that his back pain was gone, so he didn’t care.

Women are constantly amazed when I remind them that “it’s OK to move your hips when you walk. In fact, it’s what you’re supposed to do!” Many confess that it’s been a long time since they’ve moved their hips. It’s seen as suggestive. Many even refuse to let their abdominals relax so they can breathe properly; they’re too concerned with having the appearance of a flat stomach.

And then there’s an older woman I worked with – bent over with a shuffling gait. When I reminded her to allow her hips to move when she walked,  she asked me, “you mean, move my hips like this?”- at which point she promptly straightened up, and sashayed down the hallway. “Exactly!” I said. She reverted to her stooped posture and said, “I can’t do that. I’m a preacher’s daughter and my daddy told me that only loose women walk that way.”

Bodies are meant to move – freely, effortlessly, easily. No matter what others tell you, let your senses and your body be the judge – not other people and their prejudices. Then ask  yourself, “what cultural, familial or societal rules might be embedded in your movement?”

How To Stand Up Straight

In my last post I talked about the “Myth of Aging,” as Thomas Hanna called the belief that humans inevitably become decrepit as they age. Here’s one of the most common postures that people associate with old age:


This is typically considered “bad posture.” Some people say that they’ve always stood this way.

Thomas Hanna called this the Red Light Reflex. Psychologists know this as the Startle Response. It is a reflexive response to fear, worry, anxiety… and now more than ever, habituating to hours slumped over a computer. If I were to suddenly frighten or surprise you, you would quickly and instantaneously tighten your abdominals, hunch your shoulders, round forward, and pull inward. This occurs in order to protect you from a real or perceived threat. Breathing stops as you wait for the danger to pass. If the belly is tight (in response to fear), it makes it impossible to fully, freely breathe. This affects all aspects of your physiology, from digestion, mood, energy level, the oxygenation of your heart and full coordination of walking.

If you are “collapsed” inward this way, your inner thighs tighten, causing you to pronate and fall inward. You might even experience knee pain. Orthotics might help you in the short term, but the problem lies more in the center of your body and the lack of balance in the inner and outer thigh muscles. But remember, that which is learned can be reversed or avoided altogether.

The trouble is this: this kind of reflexive posture has little to do with old age. Last week I observed a group of teenager girls gathering to chat. I was stunned by the number of them with rounded shoulders, depressed chests and necks jutted forward, just like in the photo above. They couldn’t have been older than fifteen or so, but every one of them displayed the “posture of senility.”

Aging has its stresses, yet this kind of posture can be avoided if, as mentioned in Wednesday’s post, we pay attention to our movement, and bodies and spend time every day lengthening our muscles to remind them to stay long and relaxed.


The Myth of Aging

If you’re not getting better as you get older, you’re doing  something wrong.
–Thomas Hanna

I have a client who came in with severe shoulder pain that had been plaguing him for years. He told me about his many car accidents, hours at computer work, and caring for a newborn baby. He told me that his doctor first asked, “So how old are you?” and then told him that nothing was wrong. My client was, understandably, annoyed that his doctors would insinuate that age would have anything to do with his pain.

Chronic muscular pain is not age-related.

It builds up over time as we respond to stress – accidents, injuries, surgeries, ongoing emotional or occupational stresses. It also results from not paying attention to the sensations of your own body. That feeling of muscular tightness, restricted movement and bad posture can not only be avoided, it can be reversed.

Modern industrial cultures encourage people to pay attention to things outside themselves: computers, spreadsheets, phones. Such cultures also produce people who don’t pay attention to what it feels like to be in their own bodies. That sense of one’s body in movement and space is called “proprioception.” When you are “proprioceptively intelligent,” meaning aware of the way in which you respond to stresses, you are more likely to be able to relax those muscles. If you are unaware of what you’re doing, and unaware of the way in which your muscles are supposed to move, you are more likely to accumulate muscular tension.

Thomas Hanna, in his book Somatics: Reawakening The Mind’s Control Of Movement, Flexibility, And Health, wrote about teaching a group of osteopaths, chiropractors, doctors and physical therapists in Australia. He taught them some of the procedures he used to teach people to reverse what is believed to be the inevitable breakdown of the human body as we age. He spoke about proprioception and Sensory Motor Amnesia (SMA). One cardiologist wrote in a paper that, what Hanna taught “has as much potential for understanding the mind-body relationship as Einstein’s theory of relativity had for physics.”

So next time you get to work and see 100 emails in your inbox, notice what your muscles do. Or when someone calls your name or tells you to “hurry up!” or your cell phone rings, notice what your back muscles do. Notice if you hunch your shoulders in traffic, or slumping over your computer. When you walk, notice whether or not your shoulders and hips move. These are first steps toward reversing the “myth of aging.”